Sunday, 20 April 2014

Alice in Denier Land - Pseudoscepticism in Focus

I don't normally go in for social/psychological comment on the 'human' face of the 'climate change' (TM) debate, but with recent online 'interactions' on various blogs, a number of thoughts have occurred to me which I thought I would try and coalesce into a blog post.

In particular, the retraction of Recursive Fury by publisher Frontiers has sparked an enormous amount of debate on the validity (or otherwise) of labelling many sceptics of CAGW as 'ideational conspiracists' - conspiracy nutjobs/whackos in common parlance. As one person seemingly convinced of the unassailable credibility of consensus global warming climate science put it, in his considerable experience most sceptics, even the very intelligent ones, are fatally prone to making unfounded assertions based upon ideological imperatives and are, therefore, "batshit crazy".

Recursive Fury and its precursor LOG12 seem to have sunk deep into the psyches of online defendants of the global warming dogma who seemingly take every opportunity possible to use them as a stick with which to beat their opponents. Leaving aside the merit (or not) of the actual papers themselves for a moment, the ideational conspiracist theory is an extraordinarily useful and all encompassing tool with which to engage in debate with opponents. In order to see why this is so, I quote from Recursive Fury the following:

". . . . the presumed intentions behind any conspiracy are invariably nefarious (Keeley, 1999): Conspiracist ideation never involves groups of people whose intent is to do good, as for example when planning a surprise birthday party. Instead, conspiracist ideation relies on the presumed deceptive intentions of the people or institutions responsible for the `official' account that is being questioned. . . . . There is evidence that climate denial is infused with this assumption of nefarious intent . . . . . "

In other words, climate change deniers labour under the misapprehension (ludicrous, one may imagine) that the establishment line on CAGW is propelled by nefarious intent and therefore the reason for their resistance is not primarily driven by a sober rebuttal of the science, but a reaction against this 'evil plot'. Such a viewpoint is confirmed later in the text:

"The theorist typically considers herself, at least tacitly, to be the brave antagonist of the nefarious intentions of the conspiracy; that is, the victim is also a potential hero." 

The beauty of Recursive Fury is that, by aligning itself with establishment global warming science, it offers up the opportunity for CAGW proponents to recursively re-analyse their detractors as anti-science deniers in the grip of paranoia. If they mutter misgivings about being labelled as ideational conspiracists, this in itself must be evidence that they are indeed prone to imagining conspiracies because they see nefarious intent on the part of their opponents to label them as nutcases, ad nauseum! Great for shutting down debate on the real issues.

Indeed any protestations by sceptics which even hint at foul play on the part of the Untouchable opposition can be conveniently reassigned as psychotic behaviour. Take for instance the unhappy circumstance whereby the innocent phrase climate change has now come to mean almost exclusively man made 'climate change' (TM). Very convenient for warmists that the preferred term of reference for their theory now technically encompasses warming and cooling; indeed, wetter, drier, hotter, colder, more extreme, erratic, etc. etc., anything which may be reasonably deemed as 'climatic variability', expressed as changes in average temperature or average weather conditions. So climate change (man-made) technically doesn't just imply global warming, which is rather fortunate because we haven't had any for 17.5 years. But dare to mention that this might be a little too convenient and you will immediately be guilty of imagining nefarious intent. Even if you accept that the misappropriation of climate change was originally an entirely innocent result of random circumstance, that there was no 'conspiracy' to replace global warming with the term, alleging that the continued use of the term by the global warming fraternity is taking full advantage of the ambiguity which it implies and is 'stealing' from the plate of the natural climate change brigade (perish the very thought!), you will still be conveniently labelled a crank. 

Which brings me onto the attempted misappropriation of the term 'sceptic' and the seeming 'plot' to hijack that term such that it exclusively implies 'genuine sceptic' and excludes all or most anti-science denialist 'non-genuine' sceptics, where the preferred terms are now 'pseudosceptics', 'faux sceptics' or 'fake sceptics'. Thus by safely consigning 'climate change'(TM) 'scepticism' to an intellectual backwater labelled pseudoscepticism, the sting can be taken out of the backlash against global warming dogma. If one can be 'proven' to be a pseudosceptic, then this must necessarily bring into question all of one's arguments - scientific, ethical, practical - against global warming theory and the damaging measures being put into place to counteract the perceived threat of 'thermageddon'. If one can label the entire sceptic blogosphere as 'fake' then virtually all online dissent becomes not that lofty form of 'genuine' scientific scepticism (often taking the form of lone mavericks questioning the prevailing scientific dogma) which has historically driven quantum leaps in scientific understanding, but a lowly, shambling 'pretend' form of scepticism which needs to be consigned to the gutter.

But of course, many sceptic bloggers take their cue from peer-reviewed scientific papers which do bring into question the idea that CO2 emissions are predominantly responsible for the changes we have seen in global temperatures. So reasoned scientific rebuttal of the prevailing narrative is also tarred with the same brush, especially if such scientists involved actively engage in trying to communicate their counter-theories to a wider audience, especially if they run a blog frequented by 'fake sceptics'.

Is this viewpoint justified? Let's look at some actual dictionary definitions of scepticism:

1. (Philosophy) a person who habitually doubts the authenticity of accepted beliefs
2. a person who mistrusts people, ideas, etc, in general
3. (Philosophy) a person who doubts the truth of religion, esp Christianity”

A person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions.

Given these definitions, how can anyone possibly be a ‘fake’ sceptic? You either are or you are not. There is no grade scale of scepticism which goes from ‘genuine’ to ‘fake’. Lewandowsky et al would also most likely label all sceptics in that case as mentally abnormal in that they show a 'habitual inclination' to question the consensus establishment viewpoint.

There is only one circumstance whereby I can imagine someone being deemed to be a pseudosceptic, that is if they are engaged in the pretence of being a sceptic, but are not really, therefore they have an agenda to promote which has little to do with any natural impulse to question establishment views. In which case, they are dishonest and manipulative by expressing a sceptical viewpoint which they do not really have; it only serves to promote an agenda, for instance, the interests of the fossil fuel industry. So labelling sceptics as pseudosceptics, CAGW advocates might reasonably be accused themselves of indulging in conspiracist ideation in that they are imagining nefarious intent on the part of those people voicing dissent.

More likely, such people are just seeking to diminish the genuinely held sceptical views of those who question the global warming narrative by assigning to them a linguistically absurd descriptor. But then by the recursive, iterative theory of conspiracist ideation, such a statement would simply be evidence of paranoia on my behalf, therefore very easy to dismiss out of hand.

I would maintain that it is a legitimate strategy to question the technical basis of scepticism, but it is not an intellectually honest strategy to attempt to downgrade that scepticism by re-labelling it. That smacks of channelling dissent into manageable areas which may be safely ignored or even ridiculed - that is deliberately sending Alice down the rabbit hole into Denier Land. Yet more presumptions of nefarious intent! Oh dear.

Calling sceptics deniers is nefarious. Calling them conspiracy theorists on the basis of the academically dodgy and ethically questionable LOG12 and its now retracted sister paper Recursive Fury is definitely nefarious. Further labelling 'deniers' as pseudosceptics is both brainless and nefarious. Denier Land thus becomes the entire sceptic blogosphere inhabited by psychologically aberrant individuals who have no place in 'normal' polite society and certainly no place in academic circles where 'real' scepticism is supposedly alive and well; just not evident at all with regard to climate science, presumably because the science is 'settled' and there really is no valid reason to question it. Only cranks would do that, wouldn't they?